The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt follows the thirteen-year-old Theo Decker after the loss of his mother in a terrorist attack at the Met in New York.
During the attack, Theo steals the painting that gives the novel its title, Carel Fabritius’s The Goldfinch. While the title of the book might suggest that we are focused on the painting, this is secondary to Theo’s coming of age journey.
The painting’s role in the book is a kind of absence, then, for after Theo comes away with it, the painting is only occasionally brought up almost like an after-thought, or perhaps as a secret that he does not want to examine too closely.
The novel could be said to be engaged in these absences — from the evocative passages describing the absence of Theo’s mother in the early part of the book to the sense of missing his father before his father has even died, a feeling rendered through the father’s distracted drug use and gambling, and then through the literal loss of the father.
Also beautifully portrayed is the narrator’s feeling of missing New York, ever more palpable by the marked difference of this home to the suburban Las Vegas to which he moves. That suburb is overdeveloped and underpopulated, and again there is a feeling of emptiness and absence pervading it. Just past halfway in the novel there is a leap of eight years after Theo returns to New York, so there is a large time gap in addition to this described physical emptiness.
All of these absences of course also parallel the absence of the painting from the public domain, though this is cleverly unwritten, subtle enough that we note it without focusing too hard on it. The painting is there but not there, always in the back of our minds but rarely brought out to view until the very ending, when it takes centre stage.
Overall the book is engaging, fast paced and gorgeous in its prose. The plot carries the reader easily through to the end, though I did think that it dragged on too much in the final pages while Theo begins to ask the questions that seem to have driven the writing of the book — two that stand out for me: what is the value of art, and can ‘doing a bad thing’ have a good result? Without giving too much away, I think the conclusion suggests that the painting is worth more than any individual person’s life.
I am not sure that I am satisfied by that conclusion or by this supposed ‘happy’ ending, which seems to let Theo off the hook. It’s not a daring conclusion, and it’s a paltry answer to those questions. Following the climax the book is perhaps a little boring for that reason. Small complaints for something that manages to keep your rapt attention all the way through its 700+ pages.